Frankincense and Myrrh

Ok – I admit it, I actually did know a lot of those things about F and M. Not the families of the plants, of course, but most of the rest. I’ve picked them up and use them because they hark back to my memories as an altar boy. I was in the last generation od altar boys that had to memorize the Mass in Latin and deal with Communion Rails and altars that faced away from the congregation (rathen that toward them, as in all churches since Vatican II).

I, too, have been a frankincense wrangler. The charcoal they sold for the purpose of melting the frankincense was specially made with a bead of flammable substance running around the edge (gunpowder? It acted like it!)to make lighting easier. (I’m surprised they don’t incorporate this into Bar-Be-Cue charcoal. It would save a fortune in lighter fluid.) Contracy to Cecil’s assertions, though, us lowly altar boys didn’t get to ladle on the frankincense – that was the priest’s prerogative.

I always viewed “censing” things with the frankincese fumes as another instance of fumigation. Even after the discovery that carbolic acid killed germs, people continued to flush things with sweet-smelling (or sometimes downright nasty-smelling) smoke in the belief/hope that it would kill whatever might cause disease (Read Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad. They also used to fumigate mail in a lot of places!). This went on long after people should have realized that it didn’t do any good. I suspect its survival in Catholic ritual was due in part to a surviving belief that it did some good, along with a fine sense of ceremony.

Forgot the link to the column!

I guess I don’t see the confusion here. Cecil basically said frankincense and myrrh are used as aromatics and/or cosmetics, among other things. So the wise men brought gold, plus what today would be a nice gift basket of bath oils.

Perhaps it’s later revisionism, but I was always under the impression that the gifts were symbolic of the roles Jesus was to play. To quote We Three Kings: “King(gold) and God (frankincense) and Sacrifice (myrrh)”. Is this a load of bull-puckey?

Christian authors will always tell you that everything surrounding the birth of Christ symbolizes something or another. Whether or not they are true is debatable, depending on your faith. Even if the symbolism is there, the bottom line is, these were just some nice gifts for a new baby.

I get mine from a spice company in Texas, for very reasonable rates.

Why were these two items so valuable? Why was pepper worth more than gold in the middle ages? Because people were willing to spend the money to get it.

Remember that the Egyptians were still in the habbit of mmummifying people, and both of these ingredients were used in that.

Remember too that the Wise Men did not show up the day Jesus was born, but sime time after, since 1) Herod killed all the boys under two years of age and 2) the Wise Men went to the HOUSE that Jesus was living in.

And since Joseph and Mary were soon to take Jesus to Egypt, and Egypt was where Frankinsence and Myrrh were most valuable, those, along with gold, would have been very handy for easy travel.

I think that it was just another example of God’s provision.

I can’t resist quoting from Stan Freberg’s comedy sketch, Green Chri$tma$:

Um… not-so-minor sequential error: Check again in Matthew Chapter II – Herod orders the Slaughter of the Innocent after the Magi fail to inform him on the final location of the king-child. (But good call on the so-often missed detail that they showed up some time after the birth , when Joe & Family had moved into more permanent quarters). The sequence goes: Jesus is born; Magi show up; Herod asks Magi to report what they fing; Magi present Valuable Gifts to the family; God calls to warn them all to leave town w/o telling H.; H. gets mad, orders massacre.

Not at all. It IS an accepted interpretation of the meaning of the gifts in many, many, if not almost all, Christian traditions. Like jonfromdenver said, in virtually all of the Gospels’ “biographical” bits you ARE working on two simultaneous levels, one descriptive, one symbolic. It was written that way. But it is refreshing to see this being discussed in terms of “would that make sense as a gift to a couple of real, living parents” and finding that, well, yes it could. Some gelt and some pleasant AND valuable commodities.

Hi all

I don’t know where I read this, could look it up for others if necessary. But I was under the impression that Myrrh was a natural abortificant. As such it was readily used and became somewhat rare in ancient times (no pill). This supposedly caused the price to increase dramatically making it a lovely gift for a new mother, particularly one who is sleeping in the barn. Note Jesus had no documented siblings.

Except she’s NOT “sleeping in the barn”… the Magi go deliver the gift to J & M’s HOUSE. The gospel is very clear that the barn incident was a one-time emergency.

i know this is a different topic (and was addressed by Cecil here back in 99), but i think when the gospels refer to the disciple James (several times) as “James, the brother of Jesus,” and no other disciple is referred this way, to me that means that they were brothers. there’s no way to know for sure, but unless they were living in 'da hood, i don’t think he would be called that all the time. though the myrrh/abortificant thing is definately more creative, if not believable, than the few crazies that say Mary and Joseph never had relations. i mean, come on, they were married!

Johnfromdenver, weather Jesus had brothers or not… HE DIDN’T HAVE THEM AT THE TIME! get it? are you forgeting aobut the 4th dimension? 5 years later is different from now…

And do you want absolute proof that Jesus was an only child at the time (because there are direct syaings “jesus your mother and brothers are here” said before jesus even said that his mothers and brothers are those who believe!) Becaus only the oldest and unblemished and oldest of the children in sheep was acceptible for sacrafice…

either Jesus was not an acceptible sacrafice meaning we’re all going to hell… or Jesus had no brothers at the time

I think that it’s pretty well established that Jesus didn’t have any older siblings, and was hence an only child for at least a short period, but what does that have to do with anything? You don’t expect Mary to have popped out another one two days later, do you?

wha??? did i miss something? of course jesus didn’t have any older siblings…wasn’t his mother the Virgin Mary? i’m not understanding the significance of this post whatsoever. i was simply expressing my belief that jesus had siblings later in life, because Tenebras addressed the possibility of myrrh being a abortifacient. if the family recieved the myrrh after jesus was born, i thought that Tenebras was saying that jesus had no later siblings, which is what i was disagreeing with. frankly, your post made no sense to me.

The tradition that Mary remained a virgin all her life (yes, that includes a necessary miracle at the time of Jesus’ birth) is very old, and still official RC doctrine. This requires, of course, an explanation for the mention of “brothers” of Jesus in various passages; the word is taken to be a vague reference to what we would call cousins. This cannot be proven, but in a 1st-century Jewish context is, at least, considerably more believable than it would be in the contemporary western world.

thank you, JWK, someone has finally put some understandable substance to this point. i guess i’m not too up on my RC doctrine, cause i didn’t know that was still a part of it. but do you happen to know why this is part of RC? doesn’t it seem like more of a curse than a blessing?

I had a nephew born near the Feast of the Epiphany (Jan. 10 in his case).
Someone I worked with had a side business of selling incense sticks. Two varieties she had were frankincense and myrrh. So she gave me those as a gift. I then found a little gold medal with some Catholic Saint that a Buddhist friend was given when she gave birth at a Catholic hospital.

So when I visited my nephew, I brought him all three. His parents were impressed, although they were not the most useful gifts in the world.

I have since opened up a mutual fund for him.

I should say it’s RC doctrine now because it always was. Roman Catholicism has changed a good many external things in the last 40 years, but it has not changed what it officially believes. Even such technically recent innovations as the doctrine of the Assumption of the B. V. Mary (i.e., she didn’t die, she, like Jesus and Elijah, went straight to Heaven in her body), which was made official only in 1950, has been floating around the Church unofficially since before Constantine.

Now, as to why it should be thought so, well, of course, there are always those who have some notion that sex is evil (which is, by the way, absolutely heretical), and that probably had some input. But even admitting (as Catholicism does), that sex is good, the fact remains that one good thing is not the same as another good thing, and Mary had more important things to concern herself with.

(By the way, I’m not an RC, and never have been. But I know my way around Xtian theology.)

According to John M. Riddle, in Eve’s Herbs: A History of Contraception and Abortion in the West, not only is myrrh an abortifacient, but also frankincence has contraceptive properties. According to Riddle, this fact was widely known is ancient times. Frankly, I’d be willing to pay more for a sure-fire contraceptive than I would for something that simply smelled good.

So then you have to wonder what message the Wise Men were really intending to convey with their gifts–“Hey, girlfriend, we’ll buy your version of this story, but you don’t have to let it happen again?”

(Incidentally, the myrrh plant, which produces the aromatic sap, is named for Myrrha, daughter of Theias. As a result of incest with her father, Myrrha gave birth to Adonis. When Theias wouldn’t quit, Myrrha turned to the gods for help and they turned her into the plant… “whose sap can save daughters from [some of] the consequences of incest.” (Riddle, p. 53)) It gets a little wierd if you think that all the way through.